The theatre mask has its origins in different cultures across the world. One of the most familiar images representing drama and theatre is the "tragedy/comedy" dual mask motif. This originated in Greek drama around 600 B.C., which itself arose as religious celebrations of the god Dionysius. You will find other masks in Italian Renaissance and Japanese Noh theatre. The drama mask is generally symbolic of a character's identity or emotions being expressed.
Greek Drama Masks
There are different Greek drama masks. These were used to identify the gender and character (women's roles were performed by men in early Greek drama). Each mask was designed to allow the audience to also identify the age and social rank of the character. In addition to the actor, there might be a chorus which also wore masks. The dramatic structure of Greek plays allowed actors to exit the stage to change their masks, while the chorus remained to perform for the audience.
Roman dramatic tradition inherited much from Greece. The Romans added to mask-wearing by making masks with exaggerated expressions and allowing women to perform as well (men wore brown masks, women wore white). The emotions expressed on the masks ranged from mournful, to joyful, to leering; all were highly exaggerated to allow the audience at the back of the theatre to gauge the emotions of the actors. The Romans added elements of low and coarse comedy to drama, which broadened theatre's mass appeal.
Theatre in the Middle Ages was frowned upon by the Christian Church. However, presentations survived in the form of religious (or "mystery") plays involving stories from the bible, usually the Nativity or the Passion. Masks in these plays were used to represent the main characters and the devil. Europe also had a tradition of masked performance originating with non-Christian religious rituals, such as Samain, where a man wearing a horse-head mask led a procession.
Translated as "comedy of the profession," the commedia dell'arte tradition built on the low comedy and farcical dramas of the Romans. The masks conveyed many stock characters, such as the Jester, the Old Man, the Captain and Maid. While the facial expressions on the masks were exaggerated, performance depended largely on the actor's talent for verbal improvisation and physical agility. The mask itself simply conveyed the stock character's identity.
The Noh mask in Japanese theatre originated in religious ceremonies in the late 14th century. Over time, the religious significance of the Noh masks lessened. Noh masks have neutral expressions. It is through the performer's subtle tilts and angle of the head and other body movements that the emotion of the mask is conveyed. Often antiques, Noh masks are treasured as family heirlooms. As a result, the performer places great reverence in the mask; the word "attach" is used when describing the act of putting on the mask, implying that the performer is merging his or her identity with it.